Ever since Chinese wushu began to be an exportable commodity, martial artists the world over have wondered about the actual fighting ability of its adherents.
In the 1950s, China nationalized its long martial arts tradition, turning the practice of wushu, or “war art” (known through a curious inversion of definitions as ‘gong fu’ to the rest of the world) into a state-sanctioned activity. Financed by the government, and taught from an early age through the university level, wushu is today a high-profile sport in China, with its performers showing an astonishing ability in the performance of forms (kuen), blending wushu, gymnastics, and acrobatics into an art form of undeniable beauty and grace. Wushu is also highly popular in many other countries, including the United States, where its practitioners often successfully challenge Chinese performers in contests at home and abroad.
Their obvious forms ability aside, however, the question still remains in the minds of many, more traditional martial artists: Can wushu stylists fight? I myself idly wonderedthis for some time, until I finally, and unexpectedly, had an opportunity to find out the answer for myself first hand.
In the mid-1990s, I was an instructor in a gong fu school in California teaching a Southern Shaolin style named choi li ho fut hung, a variation of choi li fut, also sometimes called san soo. It’s an external style developed and promulgated in the Kwan Yin monastery in Southern China. One evening, I was in a local bookstore among the martial arts texts, searching for something to clarify a point to my students, and I met a man browsing the same section. We began talking, discovered we had martial arts backgrounds, and left the bookstore to get some coffee and talk further. It was then I learned I had just met a former American National Wushu champion.
His name was John Dufresne, from Kentucky, and he was out on the West Coast on business. John had a successful wushu school in Kentucky, entered his students frequently in wushu competitions domestically and abroad (including China), and had once himself been this country’s wushu forms and freestyle (sparring) champion. This was during the mid-to-late 1980s, after which he went to Beijing and began a course of study with China’s national team and instructors that lasts until this day.
Naturally, I found all of this fascinating. I had always admired wushu performers, even if I was unsure of their combat capabilities, because they were obviously very good at what they did. And here I was talking to someone who knew the art form intimately.
Finally, I mentioned to John that I would be interested in exchanging knowledge with him, and that my school just happened to be close by and, by a curious coincidence, I had a set of keys. Within minutes, we were at the school, and were both changing into looser clothing, to facilitate movement. It was late evening and no one else was in the school, so we walked out onto the floor and began to compare techniques, movements, philosophy, histories, and applications. And I soon learned that John Dufresne could fight, and fight well.
He told me that, contrary to popular belief, most wushu stylists come from a varied martial background before they undertake wushu, or they learn authentic styles of gong fu concurrently with their wushu training. In any event, they are well-rounded artists who use real gong fu to enhance their wushu, inasmuch as regulations allow, and study both disciplines with equal intensity. There are exceptions, of course, as in all areas of endeavor.
John himself was well-versed in Northern Long Fist, bajiquan, and hung gar, and was one of the most skillful taijiquan practitioners I have ever seen, before or since. In fact, it was he who told me that, to be complete, I had to study the internal arts. “You will never understand energy,” he said, “without an understanding of the neijia (internal).” At the time, I filed the information away in the back of my mind. There were other things I wanted to know. So I asked him if he would mind sparring for a few minutes. He accepted, and we began.
It was, to say the least, an educational experience. John moved fluidly, quickly, and his basics were outstanding: his form, strikes, blocks, everything was crisp and tight, obviously the product of many years of dedication. And he was good! It took everything I had just to stay in the game (I had practiced years in my own right, and was not ashamed of my abilities).
Finally, I signaled an end. I had had enough. And I had learned the answer I had sought. It may be true that some wushu players are only adept on the forms floor, but others can indeed claim to be serious martial artists. John Dufresne is one of them. We went on to build a close relationship, and I trained with him whenever he would come out to the West Coast, approximately every other month for up to a week. He showed me many interesting and fascinating things, and told me amazing stories about his studies in China. But those are for a later article. The point of this one is that, regardless of appearances and popular opinion, the truth may be other than what we think it is.
I discovered part of the truth the night I sparred with a wushu stylist. And that truth is that at least one of them hits and kicks like a mule.
Wushu: Is it more than just performance?
Originally published July ’01. Written by Richard Albeen.